Crime in Southern Illinois

by Rich Davis
Courier & Press staff writer
Re-printed by permission.  Thanks, Rich!

Sunday, July 11, 1999
*Contributed by Don Carter.  Thanks, Don!

The Birger gang outside Shady Rest, Ill., in a picture that became a popular postcard.
Charlie Birger is seated in the center, atop the car.

Old jail museum 
keeps alive legacy 
of a 'generous' gangster

Benton, Ill.--Chicago had Al Capone, and Pike County, Ky., had its McCoys, as in the feuding Hatfields and McCoys.

     But for a real McCoy of an experience involving feuds and a bootlegging bad guy--so smooth he charmed neighbors, school kids, even pie-baking housewives--you need only drive to this town of 7,000 about 70 miles west of Evansville.

     This is where gangster Charlie Birger smiled at the crowd on the town square and said, "It's a beautiful world," before being hanged, about 10 a.m. on April 19, 1928.

     He had languished for a year in jail awaiting execution, this Russian immigrant (Shachna Itzik Birger) who was once a newsboy on the streets of St. Louis and later boxed and broke horses in the West.

     The coming of Prohibition to the coal fields of "Little Egypt" brought him to Southern Illinois, where he supplied the region with whiskey and beer.

      Birger became the benevolent "protector" in Harrisburg, tossing coins to kids and making sure his Saline County neighbors had coal or food.  But across the line in Williamson County--where behind the barbecue-stand front at his Shady Rest cabin he offered bootleg liquor, gambling and a safe haven for rum-runners--he was a sinister mobster.

     The legend of Birger and his gang lives on at Historic Jail Museum here.  But this is no quaint-by-number Americana.  Inside the old jail, used from 1905 to 1990, you can see Birger's cell, with its phonograph and a long wicker basket like the one his body lay in after the hanging.  Nearby is the window where he supposedly told men erecting his gallows to "build it strong, boys."  A replica of the gallows stands there today, next to a 1923 Buick.

      From the window, Birger talked to school kids who came to see him, and to the local women who brought him pies.

      You can see the noose used to hang him and the handcuffs he wore, the phone booth where he made calls and the room where, on the eve of his execution, he granted an exclusive interview to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter.  On the wall, in the spot where he posed, is a huge copy of the picture that the reporter snapped of him that night.

      There's the police blotter in which, despite his notoriety, someone wrongly recorded his name as Charley Burger.

     You can watch a short documentary or enjoy the banner newspaper headlines that shout "Charlie Birger Dies Smiling."  Photos show a dapper man who tipped his hat on his way to court every day, who had the best lawyers and a wife and young daughters at his side in the courtroom.

     They say Birger created a persona, and during his trial even hired a company to produce postcards of his men posing with their guns.
     Benton insurance agent Robert Rea--who has promoted the museum since 1994 by portraying Birger at parades and other events and gained attention from USA Today when he spent a night in Birger's cell--says Birger was given morphine before he walked to the gallows.  He says that explains Birger shaking the hangman's hand and smiling at Sheriff Jim Pritchard, who had arrested him.
     However, Ruth Ann Owens, who works in the museum that doubles as a tourism office, says Pritchard's daughter claimed Birger refused the offer of morphine.

     "It was all a show," Owen says, noting Birger cultivated his own legend.

     Rea partly agrees: "Charlie was a megalomaniac.  He knew in 70 or 80 years he'd be a legend.

     Owens enjoys watching people come through the two-story museum, especially the little boys who can't wait to see the gallows.  Seventy years later, Birger in some strange way is still a folk hero, almost a tommy-gun-toting Robin Hood.

     She tells the story of how Birger talked authorities into letting him bring his machine gun with him to jail when he was arrested in February 1927.

     People still talk about how a rival gang dropped a dynamite bomb from a plane on Shady Rest, the rustic roadhouse that no longer exists along old Route 13 between Harrisburg and Marion.  That effort was a dud, but people like to say it was the first aerial bombing in this country.

     Birger idolized silent-picture cowboy Tom Mix and thought he resembled him--and he did.

     "He was 48 when he died, but he looked much younger," says Owen.

     DeNeal (Gary)--who spent years researching Birger and his gang and how they fit into a violent era of Southern Illinois history that included mine wars and the Ku Klux Klan--is the author of "A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger."  A revised second edition has just been released by Southern Illinois University Press.
     In revealing the man behind the myth, DeNeal recreates an era of armored cars, machine guns and homemade bombs--highlighting a violent decade that also spawned a deadly KKK war of the "wets" and "drys" and bloody coal-mine skirmishes that pitted union supporters against strikebreakers or scabs.  He tells how Birger's gang joined forces with another gang, the Sheltons, to fight the Klan.

     After local Klan leader S. Glenn Young was killed in a shootout (to which Birger was never directly linked), the gangs expanded their operations and took full control of the area.  But Birger and the Sheltons had a falling out that accelerated into a feud that led to numerous slayings, including that of Mayor Joe Adams of West city and a state trooper and his wife.  Birger eventually was charged with the mayor's killing, after his allies began turning state's evidence to save their own necks.

     Rea, 47, says Birger came along at a time in Southern Illinois history when immigrants working in the coal mines needed protection against a Klan that not only hated blacks but foreigners and Catholics.  Even the U. S. marshal in Saline County was a Klansman.

     The best epitaph for Birger may have come from the Harrisburg merchant, W. V. Rathbone, who sold him his silk shirts and suits.  Rathbone knew that Birger owned a stein featuring King Arthur and Guinevere, a pair the gangster knew nothing about.  He summed Birger up as a "vain, ignorant boy who never grew up, caring nothing for money but the excitement of earning it, jacketed in a steel vest and surrounded by enemies of his own making, demanding the adulation of the mob and seeking glory in the only way he knew how to gain it--a knight of another sort."

     Besides the Birger legacy, the old-jail museum showcases Benton's connection with the Beatles, former professional basketball player/coach Doug Collins, actor John Malkovich and Civil War General John A. Logan, who was a prosecuting attorney in Benton before the Civil War.

     Collins and Malkovich grew up in Benton.  In fact, an upstairs room was where Collins slept as a boy when his dad was sheriff and the jail was the sheriff's residence.

     And the Beatles? George Harrison's sister, Louise Caldwell, lived in Benton in the early 1960s with her husband, a mining engineer.  A persistent woman, she kept plugging songs her younger brother was making back in Britain.  Finally, Marcia Schaefer, a teen-ager whose father co-owned WFRX in nearby West Frankfort, began playing them on her radio show for teen-agers in the summer of 1963.

     Schaefer is credited as being the first American disc jockey to play the Beatles records.  That summer, Harrison stopped by WFRX to meet Schaefer.  She interviewed him on air but didn't save a copy--something she kicked herself over six months later, when the Beatles hit it big in America.

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